Not including a tutorial in Cultist Simulator was “the most contentious decision of the whole project”

cultist-simulator

I’m still not sure if I actually like Cultist Simulator, but I’m definitely fascinated by it. For now at least, I’ve finished reading Alexis Kennedy’s marvellous in-game words, but I’m not done reading about the game, and enjoying picking over Lottie Bevan’s retrospective on the game. She’s the other half of dev team Weather Factory, and there’s one bit in particular about how she and the publishers felt uneasy about there not being a tutorial – but “Alexis was dead set against it”.

Here’s the full retrospective, which is packed with far too many interesting tit-bits for me to pick them all out here. In Bevan’s words, it contains the “top-line woos and boos of Cultist Simulator overall”, but I’m going to heartlessly skip to the boos seen as that’s where the juiciest stuff is:

“The most contentious decision of the whole project was whether to include a tutorial or not. Alexis was dead set against it: it was fundamentally at odds with Cultist’s design. Our publisher, myself and a bunch of beta testers worried that without a tutorial, people wouldn’t know what the hell was going on.

Alexis was right. Tutorials have been mentioned in almost every review of the game, but most of them say that they understand why there isn’t one, and approve of the decision.

But the testers, our publisher, and myself were right, too: there was a problem. We’d originally intended the last month of development to be spent adding additional Legacies into the game, but Alexis instead ended up having to go through the text to add clues. These breadcrumbs had to be obscure enough that they didn’t undermine the rest of the game’s design, but apparent enough to lead all players usefully from objective to objective.”

Speaking as someone who found himself repeatedly stumped and had to turn to the internet for a couple of answers, I found Bevan’s next words encouraging: “peeling back layers of mystery is a hallmark of an Alexis Kennedy game, so we’re liable to run into this problem again. We’ll see if we can do better next time, and definitely won’t try to fix it just one month before we release…”

I think a lot of my problems stemmed from the fact that I’m terrible at it, and small oversights (or worse, misfortune) lead to hours of progress being whisked away from me at the drop of a pesky detective’s hat. I adored Alexis Kennedy’s writing and loved the goal I was working towards – communing with and potentially becoming an eldritch being – but ‘working’ does capture a large part of what the path there felt like. It boiled down to plopping cards into slots, waiting out timers and trying to figure out new card/slot combinations.

That worked because Cult Sim is intentionally opaque, but failed for the exact same reason. It’s a balancing act where some players are inevitably going to fall off.

Elsewhere, Bevan mentions that the time constraint they put on themselves, while ultimately beneficial, did mean they had to leave some ideas on the occulting room floor: “we had to section off a bunch of great creative ideas for post-launch consideration.” As conflicted as I am about Cultist Simulator, I can definitely see myself booting it up again if and when those ideas make it into the game.

Here’s the link to the post again – do go check it out. I haven’t even mentioned Bevan’s thoughts on the dismaying impact of negative Steam reviews, or the pressure Kennedy felt under after his success at Failbetter Games.

27 Comments

  1. medwards says:

    I’m a big fan of this game but it really needs a quick start mode not a tutorial. At first figuring it out is fascinating so that is awesome, but once you figure out the early game then it is pretty straightforward to get to a point where you have at least three passion, insight, and health and a decent bank of gold but it takes a dumb amount of time and I see zero benefit to trying to shortcut it and tackle cult/knowledge progression first.

    I found this frustrating when I felt I was edging in on figuring out the end-game, but after my last run I got hints that there was a lot more progression than I might think and now I think the lack of a quick start is a bit unconscionable. Its keeping me from playing the game again because I know how much time I’ll sink into non-novel game situations.

    • Hieronymusgoa says:

      That is my problem now, too. I am okay with still figuring out the stuff which comes after amassing lots of Lore and having a steady income and barely fending off the police again and again but if something offs me I need hours to get where I was and that part is at best meditative or if you put it plainly: re-grinding :)

      And on Reddit everyone is “This was my win after 40 hours” and I am like….waitaminute how long until i finally reach a 40h run which succeeds O.o

      • XDeus says:

        I had that problem too. I recommend setting up a sort of “normal start” so it doesn’t take so long in future playthroughs – spend a while levelling up your stats, buying all the lore books that are buyable, get all the aquaintences you can, then copy it. There’s a link to where saves are stored in the menu. This’ll give you a better starting point for future playthroughs, although obviously you are stuck with that “job” rather than the others (which look interesting but I haven’t done yet – I’m actually about 60 hours in and haven’t finished a playthrough yet because I keep doing dumb stuff and quitting).

        • iucounu says:

          Once you have worked out ways to deal with occasional bouts of Dread, Restlessness or Fascination you can tick along quietly collecting all the initially available Lore without really worrying about, say, detectives. So there’s a long, safe period which I think of as a setup phase before you actually start a cult. The point at which you need to start a cult in order to progress in the game is probably the point where you should backup your save game for a ‘quick start’ next time (though you’ll have all the same books, so there’s a slight lack of RNG-related variety in the start I guess.)

  2. Shiloh says:

    I’ve played it for a few hours but I don’t think I’m going back to it anytime soon – initial fascination soon turned to bemusement, then frustration, and ultimately boredom.

    You see, I’d promised myself I wouldn’t cheat and check the internet, so I ended up carving out a living as a painter of risqué masterpieces, fobbing off a hunter by continually loading mystique, notoriety and dread into my paintings and getting precisely nowhere. I’d occasionally send my followers off to die on an expedition, the reason for their deaths as opaque as the rest of the game. This went on for hours.

    I’m now aware there’s some form of map which opens up if you do something or other, but I never found it and to be honest, I’m not inclined to go back and try and work out how to access it.

    • Evan_ says:

      Continually loading mystique, notoriety and dread into paintings can get the protagonist to many places… but mostly not places where he wants to be. :)

      I’d avoid using things I don’t want / can’t handle more of. Mystique doesn’t generate evidence, but makes your paintings sell well.

      • Shiloh says:

        The thing is, if I hadn’t been loading notoriety into the paintings the whole time, then the hunter who spawned as a result of some who-knew-what mechanic would have fingered me as an evil cultist and ended my game.

        So I kept on piling the cards into the paintings while occasionally letting the timer run down on any spare notoriety I’d garnered through some who-knew-what mechanic while the hunter was completely occupied hoovering up all the mystique I was generating as a result of my risqué masterpieces being such a hit with the art-buying public.

        When that run finally ended in a merciful OD of fascination popping up out of the blue through some who-knew-what mechanic, I’d decided I’d seen enough, couldn’t be arsed to start again with only the work verb and some other assets on the table, and drew the veil over it in a suitably mysterious cultist-like way.

        • Evan_ says:

          Feels you should retry it with the Thrice-Occult Forbidden Knowledge of Google. I can suggest that to anyone who likes the idea of the game, but doesn’t feel like exploring various who-knew-what mechanics by observing how they consume one character after another.

          Those can be handled once known.

          I admit, I started using dark-fantasy audiobooks at a point when starting new characters.. but it gets exciting again once I get to the parts I’m yet to explore. I still didn’t finish the game.

          • Shiloh says:

            I have this thing about having to go out of game to learn how to play a game – I think I’m intelligent enough to figure out and remember what happens when certain cards are combined with certain verbs… it’s just that everything is so needlessly opaque and obtuse.

            I maybe should have known better, having bounced off Sunless Sea after a similar amount of hours played, but I loved the idea behind Cultist Simulator (Eldritch Horror is my favourite boardgame and I really liked the idea of having a go at the “other side” for a change) – I just think the implementation fancies itself way too much.

          • April March says:

            Well, I barely used outside resources when I was playing the game, and while there’s some things you kind of need to wildly guess, the game explains a lot if you pay attention. I think you do need outside resources to beat it, but I’m living proof there’s a lot you can do by figuring it out yourself.

            For instance, you mentioned that your cultists kept dying in expeditions in ways that were as opaque as the rest of the game. Expeditions are, quite possibly, the most clear thing in the entire game, as you’ll get a message explaining what’s the next challenge you’ll face, followed by something like “We need Lantern to find our path, or Forge to create a new one.” At that point, you know you need to send a cultist with one of those aspects in this expedition. The game even helpfully informs when you have a proper aspect that might not be sufficient, with the message changing from something like “we’ll find our way, probably” to “our vision is unerring”. It’s complex, but parseable.

  3. Faldrath says:

    I didn’t mind the lack of tutorial (then again, I played Fallen London and a bit of Sunless Sea so I’m more or less used to Kennedy’s games), but I did mind that in several points in the game you *could* insert a card into a verb but the start button would be grayed out with no indication as to why.

    I noticed the game has been patched a few times since I last played it, though. Maybe that’s been changed.

    • mgardner says:

      My thoughts as well. If there is no tutorial, the UI needs to be consistent. I also found a case where help text said “X will not be consumed”, but sure enough I lost the item after I performed the action. Could be a bug, or just another case of inconsistent UI.

  4. pookie191 says:

    While I enjoyed it for the most part it was like banging your head against a brick wall and hoping the wall gives way before your skull does

  5. Evan_ says:

    I love the pacing, the exploration, and the inevitable pile of protagonists fallen in various ways. I love that I must not stop dangerous experimenting in order to progress.

    I only miss some QoL additions. To move whole stacks of cards by ctrl+dragging. To send cards in applicable slots of open Verbs by double click. To be able to designate (and name!) areas on the desk that attract specific cards. Such things.

    Or if there are such shortcuts in the game, now -those- cloud use a tutorial.

    It only leaves a slight, passing bitter taste that my fear of experimenting with the supernatural boils down to a fear of tedious click n’ dragging all over again.

    • XDeus says:

      With regards to moving stacks – I don’t know where it’s mentioned, but it is in there, you just have to click the number rather than the card. Ctrl-click or something would be nicer though; Hopefully something like that will be coming soon.

  6. GernauMorat says:

    It’s a small thing really, but the fact that this one save game actually provided you with a link to its save game location (which is in simple text should to wish to mess with it) is fantastic. Really feels like the dev respects my time and my right to play the game as I wish.

    • spacejunkk says:

      Yeah. I think an Access Mode with options like Celeste would have been ideal, but the plaintext save files are the next best thing (there are even some hidden messages to players in there!).

      I hacked to save myself from jail on my 30hr save game. I was only about an hour away from winning, so couldn’t face a restart. I also felt a little punished by the random number generator – no spoilers but I’d taken “steps” to deal with the problem and had them fail (fatally!) several times.

      Discovering the game was half the fun so not including a tutorial was smart I think. But like Sunless Sea, I don’t think it’s a good fit for a roguelike.

      They could try a Tom Francis-style save system – you meet your grisly end, then you can pick from a save 1, 5 or 20 (in-game) minutes back. Maybe you get a “vision of death” card particular to that (bad) ending to commemorate the failure, and distinguish it from a “perfect” run in a way that doesn’t disadvantage you.

      Not to complain though, it’s a brilliant game.

  7. bramble says:

    Cultist Simulator is a strong contender for my personal GOTY. At this point I have it all figured out to the point where I can’t lose unless I get bored of waiting for the RNG to give me what I need to move on, or if I’m completely negligent in my attention level. But those first few days of figuring the game out were magical. Figuring out how to balance a full time job while moonlighting as a cult leader, piecing together tantalizing scraps of information from the various lores, dying and restarting as, say, the doctor who treated my now insane former character, or the policeman haunted by the glimpses of the occult I’d seen putting my previous iteration in jail, or opening the White Door for the first time – it felt like I was slowly uncovering an actual secret world. Nowadays I’m playing to finish off achievements, and to get some very high level lore that you can easily miss on a single playthrough so I can go to my forums and speculate about the lore. I am eagerly awaiting any and all post-launch content and DLC.

    I will say, to those with a basic grasp but who are still struggling – expeditions are the key. Without giving away anything cool, there are two things you should know:. There are 4 unique expeditions per tier of Secret Histories lore you ‘explore’. Once you’ve run through the 4, you’ll start getting identical, repeatable expeditions for that tier that are harder and less rewarding than the unique ones. Secondly – when an expedition starts and the initial 30sec timer runs out, click the expedition again and there will be a row of icons along the bottom of the window. These icons, and their tooltips, tell you exactly what Obstacles you will face, in what order, and how to defeat them. Upgraded cultists or hired help are basically mandatory to run even low level expeditions without disaster and death. It’s all predictable if you know where to look.

  8. FrumiousBandersnatch says:

    Starseed Pilgrim really needs a tutorial too. And The Witness would have been much better if a giant explanation popped up every time you encounter a previously unseen symbol.

  9. Teek says:

    My first 2 playthroughs were pretty confusing and short-lived. I nearly stopped playing altogether, but I find it very helpful to play as the wealthy heir/heiress to really get a handle on the mechanics. I think the game could also highlight a few tricks that don’t really rob the game of it’s discovery elements (which I love) but do bring you up to speed quicker.

    For example, if you open up one of your actions (work, dream, study, etc) you can click on the empty card slot to highlight all cards that could possibly fit into that slot. Similarly, you can click and hold a card and see all actions that card can fit into. Also, use the space bar frequently to pause, not just to help you with your mechanics but also to help digest some of the lore, it’ll fly past you otherwise. Pay attention to the card tool tips in the top right window, particularly the icons that show up at the bottom.

    Knowing all of that makes it a lot easier to experiment with the other mechanics, there’s still plenty to learn and discover on your own but you don’t need to completely fumble around in the beginning.

  10. DeadCanDance says:

    This game is nothing short of amazing. A personal favorite of mine this year.

  11. Arglebargle says:

    Opaque, unclear, but filled with beautiful prose. I haven’t been able to get to even the most basic of cultic positioning. Not at all unhappy with my kickstarter support of this, but the obtuseness of the games’ beginning has failed to set the hook.

  12. hungrycookpot says:

    The thing about games like this, is that by design, they’re made to NOT appeal to a large number of people. The designer wanted the game to be opaque, mysterious, seemingly “un-knowable”, and largely succeeded. But this type of game absolutely does not appeal to a good chunk of gamers out there, and they’re going to be pissed off when they drop $30 on a game with “simulator” in the name and a lovecraftian theme and find out they hate it. What can you do?

  13. DatonKallandor says:

    Waht the game desperately needs is a better UI. The simulated table is fancy looking an utter pain to navigate. How it made it out of early access without a simple auto-sort button is mind-boggling.

    There’s also not nearly enough writing, the strongest aspect of the game. And most of it is presented in really bad ways, tiny chunks of text in popups you have to scroll through, phrase by phrase. And it’s extremely easy to skip new text and hard to tell which text is repeated and which is new.

  14. Killy_V says:

    Bad design choice imho, I don’t understand at all what I am doing in this ‘game’.

    To me, the game sums up in pausing everystep, move my card till one is highlighted in on of the slots. Rinse and repeat.

    Too much obscureness in the colors, the type of cards, which fits in what, and what to do.

    Then I die because one card gets red and there’s no indication of what I should do to not die.

  15. johnnyr says:

    I’m baffled how anyone can like this “game”, but more power to you if you’re getting enjoyment out of it.

    I gave it an hour, which consisted of me putting random cards in random places, for no perceivable reason, other than to increase some of my attributes (which again, I have no real context for what they are or represent other than the obvious)

    I love weird, unusual games, but this just comes off as a random collection of cards and mechanics that don’t ultimately lead to anything.

    It doesn’t help that the creators and fanbase have a “You just don’t get it” attitude about their game that doesn’t even attempt to explain itself at all.

    Thank god for steam’s refund policy.

Comment on this story

HTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>